How to Read The Last War in Albion

(30 comments)

Occasionally the comment is made, whether as an accusation, a complaint, or a compliment, that The Last War in Albion is a difficult text. You can see - it’s right there on its embryonic TV Tropes page.

It would be churlish of me to suggest that this is untrue, but it is at least my hope that it’s not excessively true. So in the interests of populism, some observations and comments on how The Last War in Albion is structured and suggestions on how to get the most out of it.

First of all, I want to stress that I have never written Last War in Albion with the idea that the audience should understand all of it. The general idea is that if you don’t understand one bit, there’ll be another one along in a few sentences anyway. Part of the fun of Last War in Albion is its sweep and its scope. Given that, a bit of confusion is not only OK, it borders on the desirable. Certainly it helps emphasize the scale of the thing.

So, big picture: there’s an bit of joke underlying its structure, namely the never-ending essay in which paragraph transitions are maintained across entries. The structure is consciously based on comic book series and on the idea of serialization and cliffhangers. A single blog post isn’t the whole story, or even a complete story in and of itself, but a single element in a story. This is, these days, how single issue comics work, for better or for worse.

Plenty of people, in response to that format, “wait for the trade,” as the saying goes - that is, wait until a story is completed, and then buy a collection of issues to read in one shot. Plenty of comics are consumed that way - nobody reads Watchmen or Sandman as monthly serializations anymore, and there’s a strong case to be made that both are improved in trade. 

For exactly this reason, I publish the equivalent of trades for Last War in Albion alongside the first installment of a chapter. If you can’t spare or don’t want to toss $2 at the trade, that’s fine too - you may find archive diving more satisfying. Certainly it’s a very different project when taken in chapter form as opposed to in blogpost form, and I imagine it'll be different yet again in book form.

I really don’t want to say it’s better in chapter form, though. For me, things like the parenthesis that would not die are much better in blog form, where the start of the parenthesis isn’t in the same entry as the end, than in chapter form, where its just a really long parenthetical. 

For me, the blog format highlights the larger structure of The Last War in Albion, which is pointedly not just a description of a bunch of comics but rather an account of the entire world in which those comics exist. Inasmuch as it is military history - and obviously that’s the conceit - it’s the sort of military history that’s focused on the causes and consequences of the war as opposed to on the mechanics of the battles. Comics scholarship as Game of Thrones, if you will. 

A given episode of Game of Thrones tends to be about sketching the world of the story, with a lot of attention being paid to the first and last scenes. Each episode amounts to a statement along the lines of “here’s what the world looks like right now,” typically with some events that quietly (or loudly) change the shape of the world so that next week the world looks appreciably different. But even in a week where not a ton happens the shape of the world changes based on what route you take through it - an episode that starts with Sansa and ends with Arya has a very different shape than one that starts with Jon Snow and ends with Daenerys, for instance, and makes a different commentary on what the world looks like.

This is very close to the approach I take with Last War in Albion, which takes seriously the idea of conceptual and imaginary space. It’s exploring territory and terrain, finding major moments in the history of a movement in comics (essentially “Alan Moore and the British writers who came in his wake”) and wandering around them, looking at what’s adjacent to them. 

And this is important, because I don’t slice chapters into posts willy-nilly. I have a target word count of about 2k, though some posts are always a bit longer, but the goal is to have a given post take up in one place and leave off in a substantially different place, so that the overall point of the post is the transition between these two points.

This was practically literal in the Skizz/D.R. & Quinch chapter, where every post cut is deliberately put right in the middle of talking about some work that isn’t one of the two comics. (I had to cheat and put one in an account of Alan Moore’s expulsion from school, which doesn’t quite fit the pattern, but.) So every entry there was structured as a move between two seemingly unrelated topics, with the comics serving as the bridge. The chapter on the whole is bookended by the larger move, but the four middle posts are:

  • South American magical realism to Boys from the Blackstuff
  • Boys from the Blackstuff to The O.C. and Stiggs
  • The O.C. and Stiggs to Moore’s expulsion from school
  • Moore’s expulsion from school to MAD Magazine's Super-Duper Man
I don’t always manage it quite so tightly, but for instance the most recent chapter still used the same basic structure - it starts midway through a corporate history of Marvel Comics and ends having identified a specific problem with a particular moment of a particular mid-70s British comic series. 

So one thing to keep in mind when reading Last War in Albion, particularly in post-by-post form, is that the real subject of a given post is the transition.

I try to put the cuts towards the extremes of a given topic - I’m much more likely to cut an entry at the 20% or 80% mark of my coverage of a given topic than at the 40 or 60% mark. 20% is the ideal, because it means that a post starts with a fairly meaty bit of coverage of something. The result should be - and it’s entirely possible and even probable that I miss this sometimes due to my desire to have posts be about 2000 words - that the start of a post kind of eases the reader into things. It may take a paragraph or two, but pretty soon you ought to remember what it is we’re talking about. If I cut late in a topic, it’s usually the case that fairly early in the post there’s a sort of clean start moment that you can jump right in on. Either way, there’s a flow that gets generated pretty quickly. At least one reader has described to me what going to an Albion entry is like, saying that there’s two or three paragraphs of confusion, and then suddenly they’re comfortable and know what’s going on. So, you know, expect that. Again, it’s not unlike the experience of reading serialized comics - a new issue comes out, and you spend a few pages going “wait, where were we when I read the last issue of this a month ago?”

Another thing that I put to be a little helpful are the images. Different entries have different sorts of images, and you can often get a decent sense of what the entry is like by just scanning the images. Just from the images alone, you can tell that the most recent entry starts with broad history and then settles into Captain Britain itself, moving into interior pages and engaging with specific issues instead of just throwing disparate covers up. So the corporate history that characterized Part 41, which was all disparate covers, gives way to something more focused midway through the entry, and you can even see about where that happens. 

In general the big questions for a given entry, though, are “where do we start” and “where do we end up.” Once you’ve got those, the stuff in the middle should kind of take care of itself, moving from topic to topic in a kind of presentational “here’s everything that’s going on” sort of way. 

But there’s one other thing I tend to do, which is write big, convoluted sentences. Here’s one of my all-time favorites, from Chapter Five.
This was, of course, more or less exactly the response Action was going for, and almost everyone involved with the comic would have worn their condemnation in The Daily Mail - a staggeringly reactionary paper that memorably ran a front-page headline in July of 1934 proclaiming “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” and speaking enthusiastically about how Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists, had a “sound, commonsense, Conservative doctrine” (an editorial stance that had, a few months earlier, earned editor Harold Harmsworth, Lord Rothermere, a fan letter from Adolf Hitler thanking him for his “wise and beneficial public support” of “a policy that we all hope will contribute to the enduring pacification of Europe”), and which, more recently, lambasted Neil Gaiman’s wife Amanda Palmer for a moment during her Glastonbury performance where her left nipple was visible, to which Palmer wrote and performed a scathing musical response in which she called them a “misogynistic pile of twats” shortly after ripping off her kimono and exposing the bulk of her naked body to a rapturous round of applause from her audience - as a badge of honor.
That’s not just a long sentence, it’s an ostentatiously long sentence that’s been written almost specifically to tweak people who complain about run-on sentences. I’ll admit, I like long sentences. I like the way that linguistic structure lets you put massive, elaborate things in a single container. In this case the sentence exists to make a single, actually relatively small point - what pissing off the Daily Mail actually means. 

This is presented with what’s actually just a fairly straightforward list of facts. Nothing in the litany is hard to follow. Just two carefully chosen bits of factual history - one from a ways back, one from the present, the former chosen because of its infamy, the second because of its tangental relevance to the War. Why do it as one sentence?

Because of an as-below-so-above structure, basically. It’s the same “wander around the landmarks” approach the whole blog takes. And the point of the sentence is to let readers get lost a bit, so that you get to let the various details and facts sort of wash over you.

Which is, in general, a good approach for Last War in Albion. My view is that nobody who isn’t me should have to worry too much about the frighteningly elaborate superstructure of the thing. The reader should sit back and enjoy a sort of slide show of “here’s what’s going on in the world.” The superstructure should be visible and stand up to scrutiny, but if I’m doing my job right it shouldn’t be necessary as such, and instead the entries should work as a set of structured snapshots.

Your mileage may vary, of course. It could also be that I’m writing a dense and impenetrable bit of madness that’s terribly difficult to read. I’m probably not actually the person to ask on that one.

Comments

Anton B 3 years, 5 months ago

I'm genuinely amazed that anyone has expressed a difficulty with following Last War in Albion. I mean really? Or is this very post itself some elaborate meta-joke that I'm not getting Phil? If so well...you got me!

Seriously it's all seemed pretty straightforward to me so far, particularly compared to some of your TARDIS eruditorum entries.(*cough*William Blake*cough*).

I guess I just accepted the serial/cliffhanger structure bookended by incomplete lines of thought as the way you'd decided to do things rather than as a 'problem' of any kind which was making my enjoyment of the ongoing piece 'difficult'.

Look, if 'How to Read The Last War in Albion' is a post-modern joke I'll hold up my hands to being stupid if someone can explain it to me with a 'How to read 'How to Read The Last War in Albion''

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ferret 3 years, 5 months ago

Same here, and to be honest the serial/cliffhanger thing is less a hindrance and more a help to remind me of where we were at last time and (as if it were likely to be a problem) to ensure I haven't missed an entry.

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jane 3 years, 5 months ago

Some of the best long sentences I've read recently can be found in Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, just exquisitely constructed, often taking up the entire paragraph and the bulk of that page's real estate, though given that The Goldfinch is told in the first person, which makes the narrator front and center in the presentation of the narrative, so, of course, this king of writing becomes a reflection not just of the book's structure (which is long and winding and filled with peculiar details on art and furniture reconstruction, the "gloss" versus the "eidos", rather reminiscent of Parmenides's distinction between "appearance" and "being", which is not to say that the two aren't mutually excluded from being one and the same) but of the main character's psychology, which is really the crux of the story, and more recently of literary stories in general, where the attempt to answer The Question of "Who Are You?" has become just as paramount as describing the world around us, an intention that also, perhaps not coincidentally, makes for an apt description of the Revival of Doctor Who, and particularly the Moffat era, where that Question is asked, in some form, every single episode.

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Neo Tuxedo 3 years, 5 months ago

an episode that starts with Sansa and ends with Arya has a very different shape than one that starts with Jon Snow and ends with Daenerys, for instance, and makes a different commentary on what the world looks like.

For me, that comment would be "There are characters who are not standing waist-deep in a trench full of shit, watching sixteen hundred jackals fuck each other to death, but GRRM isn't interested in writing about them. He's interested in demonstrating that Westeros is uglier than most places. It's a cruel and shallow blood trench where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs for the crime of being good men."

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elvwood 3 years, 5 months ago

I spotted what you were doing with the cliffhanger thing (though not straight away) and have had no difficulty following TLWiA, but where this post is useful is in glimpsing a bit of the psychology behind how you write - for instance, how some parts that I took to be just going with the flow are in fact a conscious choice. Well, perhaps useful is the wrong word. Interesting, anyway.

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Froborr 3 years, 5 months ago

I'm genuinely amazed that anyone has expressed a difficulty with following Last War in Albion.

I'm on the record as finding it borderline incomprehensible. I've pretty much given up on trying to follow it.

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Froborr 3 years, 5 months ago

This may be extraordinarily helpful. I'm going to go back to the beginning of the War and see if reading it with the knowledge that it's a slide show, not an essay, helps.

(I quibble slightly with your description of Game of Thrones; most episodes make at least an effort to find some common thematic thread between their scenes, and in general the quality of the episode is predicted by how successful that effort is.)

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Jack 3 years, 5 months ago

Having read the entire archive in one go yesterday-I was bored, found this place, and got caught up with it-I can definitely say that the work writ large has enough narrative gravity to suck a reader with any interest in the subject in. But I'm a guy who has Supergods and the complete collection of William Blake poetry literally right next to each other in my collection, so I might not be the most unbiased judge of the material.

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Toby Brown 3 years, 5 months ago

I've been meaning to ask this for a while now, and this seems like as good a place as any. I'm not really into comics so haven't particularly been following tLWiA, but am familiar with a few bits (Sandman, some of Alan Moore's stuff). Would I be able to just jump in on the relevant blog post, or is context important?

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Kit Power 3 years, 5 months ago

D1 of my novel has a 500+ word chapter that is a single sentence. I'm pretty proud of it.

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quislibet 3 years, 5 months ago

With Tartt's classics background, another factor for her might well be the way Greek and Latin prose writers structured their paragraph-long periodic sentences. I often find my prose style starts creeping that way when I'm being academic. (Even with short sentences, I insert parentheticals like mad.) Obviously I'm mostly resisting right now.

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encyclops 3 years, 5 months ago

Jon Snow is a good man and he's still alive. Sansa and Dany are good women (for now) and still alive (for now). Arya...probably isn't going to be "good" for much longer, but you could argue she's likely to serve up some righteous justice.

It's a long series. Nobody is going to live happily ever after right away. Give it time. Or, if it's not your thing, don't.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 5 months ago

I would hope that within a given entry I too have paragraph transitions. ;)

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 5 months ago

I know I have readers who have read little to none of the material and quite enjoy Last War in Albion. I wouldn't say that context is unimportant - I'm sure it's a more rewarding experience if you've read the material in question. But equally, virtually nobody is going to have read everything I cover, and I do write with that in mind.

Short version - are you the sort of person who enjoys reading reviews of movies you haven't seen, or otherwise learn about works of art by reading criticism about them? If so, Last War in Albion will probably work just fine for you.

Equally... try it and see if you like it. The Captain Britain stuff currently posting is a solid jumping on point - read the last two entries and then the one that's going up tomorrow and see what you think.

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Froborr 3 years, 5 months ago

Transitions, sure, but that doesn't mean that paragraph six is thematically connected to paragraph two of the same essay. Game of Thrones expends considerable effort to try to create a single thematic thread running through all the scenes within a single episode, is what I'm attempting to say.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 5 months ago

One of my favourite sentences ever written comes from John Locke's 1693 Thoughts on Education:

"The age is not likely to want instances of this kind, which should be made land-marks to him, that by the disgraces, diseases, beggary, and shame of hopeful young men, thus brought to ruin, he may be precautioned, and made see how those join in the contempt and neglect of them that are undone, who, by pretences of friendship and respect, lead them into it, and help to prey upon
them whilst they are undoing; that he may see, before he buys it by a too dear experience, that those who persuade him not to follow the sober advices he has received from his governors, and the counsel of his own reason, which they call being governed by others, do it only that they may have the government of him
themselves, and make him believe he goes like a man of himself by his own conduct, and for his own pleasure, when in truth he is wholly as a child, led by them into their vices, which but serve their purposes."

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BerserkRL 3 years, 5 months ago

I find Arya much more virtuous than Sansa.

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Neo Tuxedo 3 years, 5 months ago

Not necessarily in order:
* Jon Snow is good and not in Westeros.
* Dany is good and not in Westeros.
* Arya is in Westeros and, when I quit reading the series about a third of the way into A Clash of Kings, was just beginning the process of having the goodness systematically ground out of her, because virtues are a weakness that will only get you killed, and fear cuts deeper than swords, and the moment you trust anyone is the moment the countdown begins to when that person will stab you in the intestines, and fear cuts deeper than swords, and the degree to which you trust them is the depth to which they'll sink the knife and the amount they twist it, and fear cuts deeper than swords, and the only way to survive is to do unto others before they can think about doing unto you, and fear cuts fucking deeper than swords.
* Sansa is good, and in Westeros, and from what I hear struggling desperately to reconcile the two.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 5 months ago

I read A Golden Thread in January. Wonder Woman isn't a character I knew a lot about other than the basics and the TV series - and the book was very effective at outlining the history of the character for somebody who didn't really know a lot about it (or at least somebody who didn't know a lot for a person who does read superhero comic books).
With Last War in Albion I think you really have to know a fair bit already. I don't mean every detail of the chronology but at least a good sense of the broad arc of the narrative and the major players (both people and publications). The eventual hostility of Moore and Morrison is assumed background knowledge as is the 'deconstruction' era of superhero comic books, the rise of the graphic novel and the British invasion.
It is rather like somebody discussing the cause of World War 1 - it would be even harder to follow if you didn't know that it was leading up to World War 1 (and that World War 1 would lead to the Russian Revolution, the collapse of the imperial age and presage the rise of Hitler and WW2 etc)

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Nyq Only 3 years, 5 months ago

All the ice zombie things are actually quite nice people.

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encyclops 3 years, 5 months ago

All four of them are from Westeros and are almost certain to come back. If you quit reading halfway through the second book, where are you getting your information? The TV show? Wikipedia? Hearsay?

About Arya in particular, I think you're letting your desire to lampoon the story outpace your knowledge of what actually happens in it. Arya's situation has changed quite a bit since a third of the way through the second book in the series. I'm not sure it's more optimistic than your description (though I think it is, and I tend to agree with BerserkRL about her which is why I put "good" in quotes), but it's a great deal more interesting.

Westeros is ugly. I don't know if it's uglier than Meereen or Yunkai. I don't know if it's uglier than, oh, Gotham City. Or medieval England. Or the real world, which is as far as I can see also a place where thieves and pimps run free and good men do sometimes die like dogs because honor alone will not help you survive.

I don't think you'd like the rest of the books more than you liked the 1300ish pages you've read so far. Personally I wasn't hooked until A Clash of Kings, and I'll be the first to say that I think the most recent two books have gotten rather uglier than they needed to be, but when people complain about all the bad things that happen to nice people in Game of Thrones, all I hear is that they'd be better off reading and watching something else. I don't think that reflects poorly on those people, nor on GRRM.

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timber-munki 3 years, 5 months ago

Part of me wants Game Of Thrones to be the biggest shaggy dog story in history and in response to the nerdrage such a revelation would bring GRRM point out the name of the youngest Stark dire wolf...

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Anton B 3 years, 5 months ago

So the 'difficulty' comes from the fact that some people are unaware that the subject of the essay is the perceived feud between Moore and Morrison? Despite the fact that Phil mentions it in nearly every post.

I mean I've enjoyed reading some of Phil's essays on video gaming and puzzle solving while having zero knowledge of either subject. I find the concept of not being able to read something without prior knowledge of the subject just ...difficult to understand.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 5 months ago

The fact that Sansa is going through hell she doesn't deserve shouldn't blind us to the fact that she is weak, cowardly, vain, frivolous, disloyal (as when she lies in court about what happened with Arya and Joffrey), dishonest (ditto), and prone to wishful thinking. I'm hoping she will grow as a person but she's shown little sign of it so far. Arya may be ruthless and obsessed with vengeance in a way that a truly virtuous person wouldn't be, but she outscores Sansa on all of the above points.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 5 months ago

Oh, and I left out Sansa's betraying her father to Cersei. Of course she didn't know what would happen; still, more disloyalty and wishful thinking.

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encyclops 3 years, 5 months ago

I agree with everything you've said about Sansa. I pity her at this point more than I loathe her, but she is by far my least favorite member of the Stark family. I put her in with the "good" group because so far she hasn't done anything (I can recall) that is baldly evil, the lie you mention being the closest call there. She's someone who is not beyond redemption, is the point, whereas so many of the other characters, in the eyes of people who react to the series the way Neo Tuxedo describes, are.

Don't get me wrong, man. I'm Team Arya all the way.

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liminal fruitbat 3 years, 5 months ago

I am utterly confused by the above opinions of Sansa - why do people focus on her being a sheltered eleven-year-old girl surrounded by dangerous people and then ignore everything that came after? All her faults are shared by her father, but he doesn't get nearly as much hate...

(Also, saying she betrayed Ned to Cersei is just bullshit. Littlefinger betrayed Ned. Sansa just revealed his travel plans for her and Arya, which given that this was pre-AFFC mostly-competent Cersei, with Littlefinger on her side, probably didn't change things.)

And anyone who calls Sansa weak at this point in the books... I don't know, maybe they read the version of Harry Potter where he's at all admirable or heroic. They didn't read the same ones as me. [/rant]

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encyclops 3 years, 5 months ago

I am utterly confused by the argument you're making, but that's not a new feeling for me. :)

I think you're suggesting, among other things, that Harry Potter is kind of a tool. I'd agree with that. I'm Team Book-Hermione.

Sansa's now out of the place where she was in over her head -- it's not like her vaunted silver-tongued quick-witted well-connected husband fared much better in the same environment -- and into a situation where yeah, she's still in a fix, but there are fewer Sontarans about and she has a ghost of a chance of coming out of this on top. It's do or die time for Sansa, I think. If she doesn't do, but loses her head figuratively and literally, she might pick up some of the sympathy her dad earned the hard way.

Of course, all of this depends on your taste and what kinds of characters you sympathize with. I mean, there are people who love Jaime. Whatever!

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Nyq Only 3 years, 5 months ago

Not the bare fact that Moore and Morrison famously don't get on. Indeed as things currently stand the Last War isn't an account of a celebrity falling out. I'm sure there will be elements of that but it clearly isn't intended to be about a beardy guy and a baldy guy bickering.
The War is a war over territory - the comics and the ownership of comics and the ownership of creativity.

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Daru 3 years, 5 months ago

I personally find reading TLWiA pretty straightforward. But I do have a lot of background in comics reading - even if I did not I would likely find it fascinating (I still do!) I have not tended to deeply read or comment on the blog posts, more down to issues of time as I work a lot and when I am not working I often am off to the outdoors.

I am excited about reading the first volume when it comes out! Will there be any of the pictures?

Glad to see another lover of long sentences.

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